I recently photographed the funeral of a beautiful 16 year old girl.
It was the most challenging shoot of my career (times infinity). The work was heart wrenching and overwhelming, horrifying and EXHAUSTIVE and . . . ultimately . . . it was tender, intimate, and astonishingly and inexplicably, beautiful. I left that day completely changed. As a photographer and as a human being.
“Lisa, would you like me to come photograph her funeral when the time comes?” The words surprised me as much as they did her, this stranger, who I’d scarcely known an hour, and yet felt had been my friend for a lifetime.
I’ll never forget her long pause, her slow, deep inhalation . . . or the tear filled “yes” that followed.
Two months later, I found myself in a room filled with grief stricken friends and family, tearfully saying “goodbye” a beautiful little angel, Kalyn. (You can read the whole story, here.)
4 Tips to Photographing a Funeral:
Obviously this goes without saying, but if ever there were a situation that was worthy of a photo-journalistic approach, this would be it. Stay out of the way. Give people space. Do everything in your power to be invisible, and then know. . . that you will fail. You will feel like you stick out like a sore thumb. Which leads me to my next piece of advice. . .
Seek Open Communication.
- ALWAYS ask first. Do NOT show up at a funeral, camera in hand, without first receiving permission from the family of the deceased. Otherwise, your attempt at heartfelt service and sensitivity will appear callous and remarkably presumptuous.
- After offering to shoot Kalyn’s funeral, I assured and reassured Lisa that there was no pressure whatsoever behind my offer. If she didn’t want me to photograph the event, I would not be upset or hurt in ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM. Definitely make sure to give the person an easy out. You’d never want them to have you there simply because they didn’t feel comfortable saying “no.” People are so completely compromised mentally and emotionally at times like these; help them out by making CERTAIN they’re comfortable with your offer.
- You must also establish open communication with your point of contact in order to clarify expectations. I told Lisa, Kalyn’s mother, that I would not shoot the funeral unless everyone in the immediate family agreed upon it and felt comfortable with my presence (I highly recommend you do the same—nothing would be as horrible as doing something so completely difficult and overwhelming while simultaneously feeling like you were unwelcome).
- Communicate about the type of coverage the family is open to. For example, when Jon photographed our son’s funeral (more on that at the end of this post) I told him that I didn’t want any images of Gavin’s body. Gavin was so very sick at the time of his death, and he had suffered from severe Edema. Without going into further detail, I’ll simply say—I wanted to remember my healthy, vibrant child, so I did not want images of his body. I only wanted images of the details, family and guests. Lisa and Tao (Lisa’s husband, Kalyn’s father) however, were very anxious to have images of their daughter. If in doubt, ASK. If you’re not in doubt, STILL ASK.
Quick Word on Camera Settings and Gear.
I shot this entire event on my Canon, 5d Mk II and my L series 50mm 1.2 lens. I didn’t want to be distracting by changing lenses constantly, and the 50mm is the most versatile lens I own (is it surprising that a fixed focal length lens is so very versatile?? Shoot with it once and you’ll see what I mean). I recommend shooting with a 50mm or an 85mm fixed focal length (or similar) or with a zoom in the 24-70 or the 70-200 mm range. I opted against using my 70-200mm 2.8, because aside from being so HUGE, the majority of the event was shot inside, in a very poorly lit room. I needed my lower apertures in order to accommodate those circumstances without using flash. My recommendation would be DO NOT SHOOT WITH A FLASH. It’s just too intrusive for this kind of circumstance.
Images of this nature are more about EMOTION than they are about composition and technical know how. If you aren’t confidnet in your ability to shoot in manual settings, shoot in Program mode or Automatic. Set yourself up to be able to manage your gear as fluidly as you possibly can. When you’re already stressed by the nature of the event, don’t add the unnecessary pressure of shooting in a camera mode that you’re not completely confident in your ability to manage.
Believe in your ability to do what needs to be done, and you’ll be amazed at your capacity to sensitively navigate the complexity of the event. It’s hard, it’s emotional, and you ARE up for the challenge.* Remember what you’re doing this for, WHO you’re doing this for, and let that drive you when the task feels emotional and difficult to carry out. You are capable. Take a deep breath and keep reminding yourself of that.
Be willing to take breaks if you need to. More than once, I had to step into an adjacent room and regroup. That’s to be expected. Give yourself space to take a break if you need it.
Post Script :: Why images of this nature matter so very much ::
When my son died, my dear friend, Jonathan Canlas, offered to photograph the funeral. I didn’t even blink. I inherently KNEW how much our family would cherish those images. Knowing that Gavin’s brothers (my living sons: ages 6, 5 and 3 at the time) likely wouldn’t remember much about about the day, I was distinctly anxious to have the funeral documented as a way for them to remain connected to this important time in our family’s life. (View those images here.)
Viewing these images is always a tender (and often a deeply painful) experience for me, however after moving through the past 2 years since we said “goodbye,” I have learned time and time again, just how valuable these images are. Not only do they help us remember, they also help us heal. When I look at these images, I am once again intimately connected to my grief. That might sound counterproductive to some. . . but for those who have experienced significant loss through death, you’ll understand how important it is to seek out ways to FEEEEEEEL. Yes, this is a photography post, but I’d be copping out if I didn’t have the courage to illustrate HOW and WHY these images are so deeply valuable to those left behind. It is human tendency to run from grief and pain, to hide. This is particularly true when the pain is as horrifying and unpredictable as that of the grief that accompanies the death of a loved one. Every time I look at the gift Jon gave us by capturing these memories for us, I realize that it is not only a gift of remembering. . . it is one of healing. I watch, I cry, I feel, and every time I do. . .I heal just a little bit more.